Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for IBS

If I was to ask 10 people what they know about psychotherapy, there is a good chance that most of them will mention Dr. Melfi from “The Sopranos.” Unfortunately, judging from the behavior of her most famous client, her effectiveness as a therapist is quite questionable! Luckily, in the real world, psychotherapy can be very effective in treating a wide range of problems, whether they be physical, emotional or behavioral.

One particular type of psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), has been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

What Is CBT?

CBT is a research-based, active therapeutic approach. In CBT, the therapist and patient work as a team in setting treatment goals, assigning homework, evaluating the effectiveness of techniques, and determining when to stop treatment. CBT targets problem areas through the use of specific cognitive and behavioral techniques.

Cognitive Techniques

Cognitive techniques teach strategies for using the mind to deal with the world in a healthier manner.

  • Identifying and challenging irrational thoughts
  • Visualization
  • Calming Self Talk
  • Imaginal Exposure (using the imagination to face a fear)
  • Thought-stopping

Behavioral Techniques

Behavioral techniques teach a person specific strategies for handling and reacting to situations in a way that reduces unwanted symptoms.


There is a significant body of research that indicates that CBT is effective in reducing IBS symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. CBT for IBS usually involves teaching the individual specific strategies for calming the body, coping with unpleasant symptoms, and learning to face difficult situations.

Any or all of the above techniques might be used, depending on the needs of the individual. In general, the symptom improvement seen following a course of CBT can be expected to continue after treatment has ended. 

In their latest research review, the American College of Gastroenterology recommends CBT as a viable treatment for IBS.

Finding a Therapist:

As with any form of treatment, it is important to work with a well-trained, qualified therapist. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies offers a Find-a-Therapist referral service.


Blanchard, E. “Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Psychosocial Assessment and Treatment” (2001) American Psychological Association

Ford, A., "American College of Gastroenterology Monograph on the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Idiopathic Constipation" American Journal of Gastroenterology 2014 109:S2-S26.

Toner, B.B., Segal, Z.V., Emmott, S.D., & Myran, D. “Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome: The Brain-Gut Connection”. (2000) Guilford Press.

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